The Portrait of Mrs. Charbuque by Jeffrey Ford


A young and talented though not yet entirely established painter, Piambo, is approached on the street by a blind man, who relays the message from his employer: Paint me, but without ever seeing me. You may be in my presence only if on the other side of a screen, and you may not see images of me, ask me to describe myself or ask anyone who has seen me to do the same. All you will have upon which to base your sketches is what I tell you about myself.

Intriguing concept, most definitely. Piambo takes on the commission, though it proves as difficult as anyone with a grain of knowledge of how painting and painters work could imagine. The sittings last for several weeks, an hour at a time, while Piambo sits on one side of an opaque screen and Mrs. Charbuque on the other. The stories grow more enthralling, yet Piambo is no closer to envisioning his subject despite the snowstorm of words she throws to him. In the end, desperate for more concrete visuals, he searches the community for information on this mysterious woman and at last her own house. It is here that he finds a stack of paintings, done by other artists, of Mrs. Charbuque: all different, and all poles apart from what he himself is attempting to do.

To heighten the drama, there is a strange epidemic spreading among the women of New York; periodically, one will be found swooning with her eyes dissolved into rivulets of blood. To compound Piambo’s own struggles, he is pursued by the jealous husband of his subject, as mysteriously unseen as his wife; Charbuque speaks from shadows in the depths of alleys, from behind while clasping Piambo in a chokehold to the neck. The message is always the same: leave my wife alone.

…and yes, there’s a plot twist, so I’ll stop here.

The book’s an interesting take on the art and technique of painting, or rather of making a living at one’s painting while alive. The process of creating a portrait such as the one in the title, the tightrope balancing of following ones’ muse and remaining true to one’s own artistic vision with that of, bluntly, making a living. Holbein wouldn’t have gotten off the ground if he’d painted Henry and Anne of Cleves exactly as they were, and Piambo’s in the same fix.

I’d call this Gothic Lite; while modern authors such as Dan Simmons ‘improve’ on the original in the sense of including a greater number of more lavishly supernatural details, Ford has stripped down the genre to its barer, and therefore more straightforward, underlying structure. Less circumlocutions. Fewer clauses, both subordinate and independent. And decidedly less purple; I’d call this no more than palest lavender. Recommended for people who like historical fiction, New York and the complexities of the Victorian Era but without the entangled fevered prose so popular at the time.

Now, back to Melmoth the Wanderer and Pride and Prejudice for me…and not least The Strange case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde. (sorry, did I say that last out loud? no plot spoilers here, please move along.)

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